Six Must-Have Fly Patterns

I’ve been tying flies for 15 years or so and if there’s one thing I’ve noticed about my tying over time is that I tie fewer patterns than I used to, and the ones that I do are, for the most part, pretty darn simple.

I try to stick to tying patterns that have the following criteria 1) they get bit if you make a decent presentation, 2) they don’t foul on the cast and 3) they don’t take a long time to tie. I’m very fortunate with my job in that I’m able to fish around the world. However, south Florida and especially the Everglades are still some of my most favorite waters to fish. This area has an amazing variety of fish that can be caught on fly and in shallow water.

Tarpon, bonefish, permit, snook, redfish, and more are potential targets, and, in some areas, all in the same day.

Having such a diversity of fish could easily drive anglers to tie, buy or steal every pattern known to mankind from their buddy’s fly box. In reality though, you can probably get away with a handful of patterns tied in various colors and sizes and still catch a fair amount of fish. Here are six patterns that are always in my box and often on my leader:

1. Marabou Muddler

The vast majority of my fishing takes place in Everglades National Park where snook, tarpon and redfish are the usual suspects. This pattern takes them all (and many more) consistently. The combination of a spun deer hair head and a marabou tail is just deadly. Muddlers are great flies for several reasons. First, they sink very slowly, which makes them good for fish hanging out in the skinny. Their slow sink rate also shines in slightly deeper water for tarpon of all sizes that like to be teased near the surface. They are also good in slightly turbid or stained water because the spun deer hair head pushes water and allows fish to feel and see the fly. You can stack clump after clump of hair to make the fly float like a cork, but I usually opt for just one or two clumps so that the fly rides just under the surface. My go-to muddler is brown with a rust collar that is about 3 inches long. I call it the UBM (ugly brown muddler) and although it won’t win any beauty contests, it still catches some very pretty fish.

2. Clouser Minnow

I have to admit that this is not one of my favorite patterns to throw but you can’t argue at its effectiveness. Is it a fish? Is it a shrimp? Hell, the fish don’t care. It is also hands down one of the easiest patterns in the world to tie and when tied in a variety of colors, sizes and weights they’ll catch you everything from bonefish to … well pretty much anything. I always have some chartreuse over white and gray over white (both with lots of flash) tied on #2 hooks with medium dumbbell eyes. If I see some snapper under a deep mangrove shoreline or in a channel, I tie one of these on and start thinking about breakfast the next day. I also can’t tell you how many Keys bonefish I’ve caught on them.

3. Gurgler

This excellent pattern was developed by the late Jack Gartside. It is a really easy fly to tie, casts better than a popper and is more versatile. They land super soft on the water and you can give it subtle little pops or blurp the hell out of it. I’m addicted to them for snook and small/medium tarpon but they can also be effective for tailing redfish that have their heads in the weeds. Like most of my flies, I tie it with a weed guard. This biggest disadvantage of gurglers is that they can “sail” quite a bit on the cast making it difficult to be pinpoint accurate with them. Even so, there’s nothing like a top-water bite.

4. Baitfish Pattern

Simple but true, having a pattern that looks like a baitfish can help you catch more fish. My go-to baitfish pattern has a marabou tail, rabbit collar and a head made from palmering a streamer or dubbing brush. Add some eyes and a weed guard and you’re in business. I tie this pattern as small as two inches and as big as six for fish ranging from small snook in the backcountry to giant peacock bass in the Amazon.

5. Crab

Everyone knows that crab patterns are a virtual must for permit and increasingly popular pattern for bones. Truth is, however, there’s a lot of fish that eat crabs. Most crab patterns should be tied to get to the bottom relatively fast but they can also be tied light for tailing fish, or even with a little weight for tarpon that are sipping floating crabs off of weed lines or in channels. Body material will depend on sink rate and can be a traditional yarn pattern like Del’s Merkin, spun deer hair like Borski’s Chernobyl Crab or whatever strikes your fancy. Even when I’m not frustrating myself with permit, I’ll often throw a crab when all else fails and they can be very good when reds and black drum shun everything else. Crabs, especially larger ones, can be a bit of a bear to throw and hard to make look like a crab on the retrieve but there are times when nothing else will do.

6. Shrimp

I know for a fact that I don’t want to come back in my next life as a shrimp. I love to eat shrimp and so does about every species of game fish known to mankind. There are all manner of shrimp patterns out there but I settle for a simple little number that has a polybear tail and some hackle palmered over grande estaz. I typically tie it in neutral colors and use small or medium bead chain for eyes. Tied small they are extremely stealthy and effective for picky bones and reds. In larger sizes they are good for trout, tarpon, tripletail… you name it. Hop one on the bottom or skitter one near the surface and something’s going to eat it.

There you have it. Six patterns tied in a variety of colors and sizes that will help you keep a bent rod. Try them for yourself and innovate as necessary to better address the fishing situations in your area.

Jason Schratwieser is Conservation Director for the International Game Fish Association, which allows him to marry his background in biology with his love of fishing. Jason oversees IGFA's conservation programs as well as its world-record program. When not chained to his desk, Jason is a rabid angle...